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OLDMAN, GARY: Nil by Mouth

From Dracula and Oswald to Sid Vicious and Beethoven, Gary Oldman remains one of the most dynamic and versatile actors of his generation. Now Oldman has returned to the South London streets of his youth for a deeply personal and passionate film, Nil by Mouth, his first foray into directing. In a rare interview, Oldman spoke candidly to Paul Fischer.

The working-class streets and pubs of south London are a far cry from the soundstages he inhabits as a major Hollywood player. This is not Hollywood studio territory, yet Gary Oldman has managed to take something from these experiences into his new found love: film making. "I guess I've been disillusioned about acting for years, and now I have found something to fill a creative void. Having made some 20 films as an actor, I've at least been able to pick how NOT to do it."

There was a time, at the genesis of his film career, that Oldman regarded acting as therapeutic: a means to exorcise his inner demons. Those particular demons may well have been flushed by now, but the brutally honest Nil by Mouth implies there may be some new demons waiting in the wings for the writer/director. "I'd be lying to you if I seriously thought that Nil by Mouth was in any way cathartic." Rather, he insists, the film comes out of "a burning desire to go back to London and tell that story there."

"I always said that this film was for me and a bunch of friends"

Oldman adds that "a lot of the emotion in the film is a well from which I had been drawing and channelling into acting, for a long time."

Oldman's searing south London tale centres around the abusive Raymond (Ray Winstone), and the people who orbit around him. He spends his days hanging out with friends at pubs and girlie bars, and returns home to his five year old daughter and pregnant wife, Valerie (Kathy Burke), who he abuses in drunken rages. Raymond also demonstrates his violent tendencies (and paranoid delusions) when he accuses Valerie's brother, Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles), of stealing. Raymond proceeds to beat (and bite) him to a bloody wreck. But these are the least of Billy's problems. Billy is a heroin addict on the downturn, and it doesn't seem that he'll last much longer. Billyís mother, Janet (Laila Morse), is Raymond's nemesis. She disapproves of him (and visa versa), but is powerless to do anything about it. She merely struggles on, hoping her children will survive their respective torments.

Oldman was forced to finance Nil by Mouth himself, taking out sizeable personal loans in order to bankroll the movie's $US2m budget. "I'm still paying the debt off and it bankrupted me. I'm not likely to see any of it." Yet none of that concerns him. "I wanted to make this film, and do it my way. I wanted to make it as real and uncompromising as I possibly could, and with as much honesty as I possibly could. For the most part, I achieved it. I always said that this film was for me and a bunch of friends, and that if it sat on a shelf without a distributor, I would dust it off once every couple of years and show it to a bunch of mates."

But the film HAS received distribution as well as prizes: from Kathy Burke's Cannes Best Actress award, to the director's prize at the Edinburgh Film Festival, and the BAFTA Awards for best British film and best screenplay. "Here is a personal movie, and we were taking a gamble, perhaps on a losing ticket; but who gives a fuck. I did it anyway. Then, for the film to have received that kind of recognition and critical acclaim - it truly amazes me."

"I was the working-class kid who got too big for his boots and fucked off."

Oldman made a conscious decision to set and shoot Nil by Mouth in the environs of his poverty-stricken youth. Although he did not leave in the best of circumstances, his homecoming, close to 20 years later, was somewhat different to his expectations. "You tend to have a relationship with the tabloids and not the actual place. And when you come under the tabloidís hammer, you think that they speak for the nation, who is against you. Therefore, you build up big demons and think: oh, that awful place. When I left, they weren't making movies there, so I moved where they were. But to the press, I was the working-class kid who got too big for his boots and fucked off. And they didn't like that. So I got a rough ride. But I had such a wonderful time going back. I thought: what was all the fuss about?"

Though not conceding the film to be autobiographical, Oldman says he based it "on life. I guess, that's what I draw on. It's all based on experience. It's true, that at times in the past, I've done my fair share of bouncing off the walls and bashing my head against them."

"it subsidises and always has subsidised what I want to do."

That can be equally applied to his recent professional career, as well as his much reported days battling alcoholism and failed relationships.

Oldman admits he wanted to make this film as a result of creative frustration, not only from his Hollywood roles, but from his days in the theatre. (Although he hasnít done a play in fifteen years, nor does he have the desire to go back on stage.) "Yeah, it was born from a dissatisfaction at the movies, where the audiences' ride has been made so much easier. They come in and start from a dishonest place. So you just go: I just don't believe it. People don't talk like that, life isn't LIKE that; it's not all chocolate boxes wrapped up and handed to you. There's no CONCLUSION, and that's why I get frustrated."

Ironically, it can be argued, given the recent spate of films in which he's appeared, that as an actor, Oldman has contributed to this mindset. "Oh yeah, but I know why I'm doing it," he responds laughingly. "I have no illusions about that." And adds that "it subsidises and always has subsidised what I want to do." Yet at the same time, Oldman has no regrets about his acting choices. "You grow up in a time - in the seventies - as an acting student. I'm watching movies like The Conversation, Taxi Driver, Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico. Now Iím old enough to do this, it's: 'let's blow 'em up again Harry'. When people say to me that Iím wasting my talent, I ask them to name me a part that I didn't do that I SHOULD have done, ANYWHERE?"

"I don't get offered many comedies..."

Yet it's his Hollywood career that has enabled him to get Nil by Mouth off the ground. As well as his next film. Although he now wants to do fewer blockbusters, he adds: "that's all I'll do, because they pay better." He would also like to shake off the mantle of playing villains. "I don't get offered many comedies [come to think of it, I get offered none], but if people look closely at Dracula, ANYONE who can come up with that sort of outrageous performance could do comedy. Unfortunately, you're only known for what you do, and lately I'm Mr Bad Guy. That's how Iím perceived."

Oldman is currently writing his next project, which will be set in New York "where I lived for years. It's about addictions. In particular, it's about the biggest opiate of all: sex." At last, after years of dissatisfaction, it seems that for Gary Oldman, the world is a better and more culturally interesting place in which to live.

This article also appeared in Sunday Telegraph, May 17, 1998

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Gary Oldman: I guess I've been disillusioned about acting for years, and now I have found something to fill a creative void."




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